What is a Stillbirth?
A stillbirth occurs when a baby is born dead, at or beyond 24 complete weeks of pregnancy. The death typically happens prior to labour, but can also happen while giving birth.
Prior to the 24-week mark, the loss of the baby would be legally referred to as a miscarriage, while death within the first 28 days of life is known as neonatal death.
What are the causes of stillbirth?
According to pregnancy charity Tommy’s, one in 250 births are stillbirths – that’s just under 3,000 a year or eight every day.
A third of all stillbirths occur after 37 weeks gestation, so it is important for expectant mothers, particularly in the latter stages of the third trimester, to seek immediate advice from their community midwife if they are worried about anything or are experiencing reduced movements (reduced movement is a symptom in half of stillbirth cases).
The main cause of stillbirth is complications with the placenta, which links the blood supply between mum and baby. This may be placental abruption (where the placenta separates from the womb) or insufficient placenta (where the blood supply between mother and baby is affected).
It is hoped that more research into placenta complications will improve detection and result in better maternal care.
Other symptoms of a stillbirth may include:
- Bleeding before/during labour
- Pre-eclampsia or high maternal blood pressure
- Umbilical cord problems, i.e., prolapse
- ICP liver disease
- Infections such as Group B Strep, E.coli, rubella, flu, listeria or sexually transmitted infections
- Birth defect
Are there any risk factors for stillbirth?
A baby not growing steadily should be a main concern for stillbirth, which is why attending antenatal check-ups is so important. A midwife will check the growth and wellbeing of a baby and if measurements trail off, it could be a sign there are complications with the placenta.
Other risk factors include
- Twin or multiple pregnancies
- Alcohol consumption
- Drug use during pregnancy
If a mother is aged over 35, obese (with a BMI over 30), or has pre-existing health conditions, her risk of stillbirth may increase.
How could I reduce my risk of stillbirth?
Along with stopping smoking, drinking alcohol and recreational drug use, you should limit caffeine consumption in pregnancy. These can all lead to a baby being born prematurely, which increases the risk of complications before or shortly after birth.
It is also advised that you don’t sleep on your back after 28 weeks pregnant. Attending all of your antenatal appointments to monitor your baby’s growth and having the flu vaccine when offered will also reduce your risk.
Will doctors be able to tell me why my baby died?
Sometimes there is no clear reason for the still birth to have occurred; around 60 percent of stillbirths are unexplained. To identify the cause of a stillbirth, many tests should be offered postnatally. These may be:
- Blood tests to check for pre-eclampsia or diabetes
- Urine samples or samples from the cervix to check for signs of vaginal infection
- Examination of the umbilical cord, placenta and membrane
- Thyroid checks
- Genetic testing
A post-mortem may be offered, particularly in violent or unnatural circumstances or where cause of stillbirth is unknown. This cannot go ahead without the mother’s written consent. As things stand, currently there is no right to an inquest where a baby is stillborn.
Finding support following a stillbirth
One of the most important things you can do if you or a loved one experiences a stillbirth is to find the right type of support. Coping with grief looks different to every bereaved person; remember that there is no right or wrong way to grieve.
There are many different sources a bereaved parent might turn to for support, including:
- Their partner, family and friends
- Mental health professionals, such as undertaking specialist counselling or therapy
- Those who have been in the same scenario (in this case, other bereaved parents) in a support group
- A support service or charity
A bereaved parent may experience sadness, anger, guilt, numbness or very intense maternal instincts. It’s important to allow the person space to grieve in the way that works for them. Let them know that you’re there for them, but keep in mind that what they need and what you think they need may be very different things.
If you or a loved one is grieving the loss of a baby before, during or shortly after birth, there are plenty of charities offering support for the bereaved, such as Sands, the stillbirth and neonatal death charity, who provide resources, support and ways to help you cope.
If you received substandard medical care that you believe contributed to your baby’s death, please get in touch with Medical Solicitors today. Our compassionate legal experts will sit you down for a free, no-obligation chat to talk about your experience and advise you on potential next steps in a stillbirth or neonatal death claim.